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Sunday, March 02, 2014

Supritha Balu
Contemporary Critical Theory- MEL 232
Dr. Pinto
15 February 2014
Reading Barthes with a Cup of kaapi
This is the time for a secret confession….I have never been able to understand Barthes.  His texts are way too lengthy and taxing on my fragile mind, and I simply could not for the life of me postulate as to why any scholar would want to dissect myths.  After all myths are not to be messed with, right?  They MAY be only half-truths, but they are there for a reason.  For instance, I would never dare question my grandparents over a retelling of the Ramayana; the epic is filled with myths and mythological characters in order to inculcate certain CULTURAL values (my personal opinion).  And here my friends, is the wardrobe to the magical land of Narnia….

Myth does not necessarily need to refer to made-up stories; for Barthes, myth is a semiological construction by members of a certain culture who signify and grant meaning to the world around them (Myth Today).  What is more, the originators of these myths necessarily believe them to be true (Encyclopedia Mythica).  In simpler terminology, Barthes considers all discourses to be myths.  Perplexed?  If we were to look at the very etymology of the word ‘myth’, it stems from the Greek mythos which initially meant speech or discourse, but later came to be associated with fable and legend (Encyclopedia Mythica).  If I were to reach into my inner-foodie and to all my culinary-inspired friends out there; even in terms of what is today known as food communication, the symbols (i.e. the combination of signifier and signified) are none other than pure simple myths.  In order to prove my (rather Barthes’ point), let’s take an easy example:

 h+o+t+d+o+g= signifier
a cooked sausage, grilled or steamed and served in a sliced bun as a sandwich= signified (Wikipedia)

According to Saussure, the link between the signifier and the signified is associative; we label and attribute meanings to objects, concepts, ideas, events, and experiences.  Hence, we come a full-circle back to Barthes by concluding that all things are myths.  Having established this, let us not go into a sense of ennui; instead, we shall apply Barthes’ theorem to a universally well-loved and admired entity: COFFEE!  

For as long as I remember, coffee for us Tamil Iyers were never cappuccinos or frappes, but degree filter coffee.  The beverage became such an iconic symbol of Tam-Brahms, that it became customary to step into one’s home and smell the aroma of the decoction wafting from the kitchen.  Guests are usually required to compliment the sight, smell and taste of the kaapi served in the dabara and tumbler.  If the celebrated drink does not live upto its mark though, it is spread throughout the Iyer gossip-tree that a particular household cannot provide its visitors with well-made filter coffees.  How did this cultural narrative of the Tam-Brahm and the Kumbakonnam degree filter coffee come about?  Well, perhaps Barthes can help us in analyzing this hundred years-old tradition…..or as we now call it, myth.

Moving away from the signifier and the signified, the filter kaapi has become a second order signifier, standing for cultural product.  The essence of Tam-Brahm values that the beverage symbolises is virtuously associative.  Much like in the visual narrative of the African child soldier saluting the French flag, we are required to read between the lines to arrive at the required associative meaning.  Denotatively, the filter kaapi is a milky beverage made from roasted coffee beans and extracted in a metallic container under the force of gravitation (Anzzcafe).  Connotatively though, the mixture of coffee beans, chicory, milk and jaggery; not only stands for the Godly act of hospitality, but is also a carrier of the South-Indian pride of being able to produce gold from straw.  I shall explain the latter statement; India was known to the British as the land of tea.  Coffee came to the South (especially Karnataka and Tamil Nadu) in the seventeenth century, through an Indian Muslim Saint Baba Budan.  He smuggled seven coffee beans from Yemen while on a pilgrimage to Mecca (ironical; Wall Street Journal Blog).  Coffee plantations thrived in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu; the local royals found it easy to placate the British sensibilities by serving them a rich hot brew of filter coffee.  Thus several hill-stations in the South became holiday spots for the British; they could enjoy the stiff air coming from the hills while keeping watch over the coffee and tea plantations.  The British officers were so enamored by this dark drink that they set up several coffee stalls near prominent railway lines.  The filter kaapi by the late nineteenth century, had crept into Tamil homes where coffee lovers (mostly Tamil women, who were interestingly asked to stay away from this ‘dark poison’) roasted peaberry beans and devised their own gadget (the filter/percolator) for roasting, grinding, brewing and serving.  Thus the degree kaapi turned into a community art-form (Crucible Chronicle).  Dissecting the coffee linguistically, chicory beans were and are still used to make the filtered brew.  The South Indian pronunciation of chicory was chigory which became digory and finally, degree (Kumbakonam Degree Coffee, The Hindu Online).  Hence, the myth of the filter coffee is a science of forms (Myth Today).  We are required to weave everything that comprises an icon/object together, in order to arrive at the desired meaning and establish the myth.  

Myth and their meanings are historically produced and conditioned according to Barthes; they are never fixed, but are constantly growing or changing.  He goes on further to say that myths de-historicise and de-politicise meanings that are always historical and political.  In terms of the filter coffee, the myth of the kaapi stands alone.  It has been reproduced so many times that it has become Americanised or Starbucked as we now call it.  When I decide to purchase a degree filter coffee today, it may not be its history or cultural implications that navigate my decision-making process, but the fact that I want to have it and my economic status which allows me to consume the product.

Myth for Barthes does not conceal anything, but distorts reality.  Myth is an ideological tool which presents realities in a manner that complies with the ruling ideology.  Take the myth of coffee itself; most of us drink it today and are psychologically made to do so because of the crop of coffee-places within an area itself.  These cafes were first opened to serve coffees-on-the-go and to provide a relaxed atmosphere for enjoying beverages.  People in the nineties were busy and they required peace-of-mind.  Hence the start of such coffee chains was in accordance with the ruling ideology.  The myths of various food items keep changing from one generation to another, in order to earn its current standing in favour of the ruling party’s ideas.  Hence for Barthes, myths can also be understood only in one manner at a given point of time; it is not open to interpretations.  This for him is the power of the myth.  The non-arbitrary relation between the signifier and the signified makes the associative link factual.  In other words, a myth is not what it describes about itself, but the assumption on which it is founded.  The ingredients of the kaapi are not what make the myth; the cultural value under which the kaapi itself was founded and devised is what gives flesh to it.  Barthes terms myth as a ‘collective illusion’; a story that a certain society or culture tells itself, to justify its own world the way it is.  Hence, all our foods have a back-story.  They may not physically voice-out where they come from and there is no empirical way of determining their status in society (except for economics which is also a human tool), but we attribute their characteristics to their location, history and culture, and link them to our understanding of food items as they are today.  

Probing into this point, let’s take the case of a common misconstruction, that of the Indian food.  What exactly is Indian food?  Does it comprise of dishes from the North, South, East, West, or the North-East?  Do the sweet or the savoury ingredients define them?  The concept of Indian food itself is a human ideological construct, a myth.  It is a collective illusion that gives us Indians a sense of national unity and identity.  If I were to go abroad, I would not term my daily cuisine as South-Indian, but Indian food.  Several South-Asian culinary markets fall under this very myth.  Asian cuisine is not noodles and Manchurian; it can be the Korean Soondubu Jiggae, or the Vietnamese Banh canh.  Hence, the language of food is not as simple as it may seem….much like Barthes’ myth.

I hope I have been able to understand Barthes through my cultural product, the degree filter coffee.  Hopefully, I shall be able to make a lot more sense of him and Myth Today while sipping on a cuppa today.  

Barthes, Roland.  “Myth Today”.  Print.  14 February 2014.
“South Indian Filter Coffee- All Stages from Bean to Mug..!”.  Anzzcafe.  Web.  
15 February 2014.
“Roland Barthes- Myth Today”.  the cultural studies reader.  7 April 2012.  Web.   15 February 2014.
Eckhardt, Robyn.  “India’s Streetside Coffee Culture”.  SCENE ASIA Food & Drink.  
The Wall Street Journal Life & Style.  27 November 2013.  Web.  15 February 2014.
Gerald, Olympia.  “Kumbakonam Degree Coffee”.  THE HINDU.  The Hindu 2014.  
27 October 2012.  Web.  15 February 2014.
Datta, Aparna.  “From Mocha to Mysore: A Coffee Journey”.  Crucible Chronicle.  
Crucible 2007-2008.  2004.  Web.  15 February 2014.
Doyle, Bernard.  “Mythology”.  Encyclopedia Mythica. MMIX Encyclopedia Mythica.  
2 August 2004.  Web.  15 February 2014

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